Brush the Dust Away

This post is about stress.

It's been nearly a year since I started MarkedUp Analytics, and we've come a long way - I've raised money, won the business of some amazing customers, built the nucleus of a really talented team, and developed a product that people rave about. At the previous //BUILD conference, no one had ever heard of us - this time our logo was shown onstage during a keynote. Feels like progress; none of it was easy.

I took my first vacation in two years last week and had a chance to put some distance between myself and MarkedUp for the first time since inception, and I thought a lot about some of the assumptions I had about starting a company when I was just getting started, in particular this section from "The Seven Unproductive Habits of Startup Founders:"

7. Sacrificing nearly all social, physical, and personal needs in the name of “getting it done”

You can push yourself to a large volume of work over a short period of time – you can cram 80 hours into a work week if you can try. But you can’t do it forever.

You know what a successful entrepreneur needs?

They need to work out and get sleep so they can maintain their stamina and energy level. They need to go out with friends and blow off steam. They need to go out on dates. They need “me” time to collect themselves.

Creating a balanced life takes discipline – I dropped the ball on this epically at Microsoft. I starting changing my behavior before I left Microsoft and it’s made me more effective and productive.

Counter point: I've put three inches on my waistline since we went live with customers on September 29th, 2012. I stopped working out within a week of our product launch and burned the candle from both ends often since. It's been nearly 300 days since I last synced my Fitbit. My diet consists largely of whatever-I-can-get-in-5-minutes choices, which doesn't correspond well with healthy ones.

Why did I not heed my own advice?

Adding customers as stakeholders to your product produces an immediate and intense set of external pressures on your company. The timelines for delivering everything increase by an order of magnitude and the pressure can be so tremendous that it can crush some employees and founders like empty beer cans. Add investors and a fixed amount of operating capital to the mix and it intensifies the pressure and the timelines by another order of magnitude. Even if you don't panic, you have to move and act like you are.

The immediacy of it all never goes away; it's there waiting for you when you get home; when you sleep; when you're in the shower; when you're out with your friends; when you're in the car; when you're with your family; when you're alone. You are damned by the contents of your inbox; the social media mentions; the Github issues list; the sales inquiries; the status updates from your teammates; the error rate alerts from your monitoring systems; the bid alerts from AdWords; the investor email updates; accounts payable; quarterly taxes; insurance; rent; lawyers; accountants; interviewees; PR; fuck. Your life quickly becomes a list of things you failed to do when you intended to do them.

You can never distance yourself from the pressure; there's no one to cover for you. You are haunted. You are cursed. And if you don't stop running as hard as you can to keep up, your company dies, your hopes and confidence with it.

At least, that's how it's felt for the past 8 months.

Your salvation is in accepting that you can never do all of the things and everything always takes longer than you anticipate. In your role as a highly accountable person you have to give yourself permission to leave things in an incomplete state each and every day. The stress you experience throughout your life is an unconscious choice to self-flagellate and self-punish. It may feel real, but isn't.

You will always harbor doubts; you will always have deadlines; you will always have some negative outcomes; you will have disappointments; and you will always have the ability to choose your priorities and act accordingly.

The inflection point for me was when I spoke onstage at a conference recently and saw just how large I looked in the recording, like one of those retired NFL linebackers who forgot to change his dietary habits after leaving the football behind.

So I wage a campaign against demons of my own making in order to reclaim my time and life. I will not judge myself or my company so harshly. I will not deny myself a glass of red wine with my girlfriend because we have a deadline. And I will get my ass back in the gym, even if it means coming into the office later each morning. I will not beat myself up over unread emails in my inbox, because there's no value in it.

Your accountabilities will always be there for you; what's left of your life and youth will not.

You'll have a list of things to do that is temporally impossible to satisfy; accept it and don't let it slowly strangle the other parts of your life like weeds.

Give yourself permission to go home with a full to-do list each day. Give yourself the permission to enjoy the things that matter to you but don't cross anything off the list. Get used to having people bitch at you for not responding to their emails ("my free time belongs to my kids," as one of my investors put it.) Who cares? Those feelings of guilt and shame are an illusion. Keep your priorities organized, your head clear, and your chin up.

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I'm the CTO and founder of Petabridge, where I'm making distributed programming for .NET developers easy by working on Akka.NET, Phobos, and more..